Posted tagged ‘sabbat’

Blog Post 214 – The Naked Witch

March 29, 2019
And ye shall all be freed from slavery,
And so ye shall be free in everything;
And as the sign that ye are truly free,
Ye shall be naked in your rites, both men
And women also: this shall last until
The last of your oppressors shall be dead;
-From Aradia: Gospel of the Witches, by Charles G. Leland

Truth Coming Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind, by Jean-Léon Gérôme 1896 [Public domain] (via Wikimedia Commons)

A lot of modern witchcraft intersects with our bodies. We expect to experience magic as a visceral force, dance ecstatically, use the remnants of bodies–both plant and animal–in our spells, or alternately slather or dab our bodies with magical concoctions to gain a little advantage in a harsh world. In particular, some branches of witchcraft religion, such as British Traditional Wicca, emphasize the importance of bodily acceptance and embrace the human body as a source of power. That power, according to Wiccan progenitor Gerald Gardner, is pulled from the freeing of an “electromagnetic field” by the removal of clothing (although Gardner did allow that he thought “slips or Bikinis could be worn without unduly causing loss of power,” for what that is worth (and please note, I’m not particularly taking Gardner to task here, nor disavowing the traditions he launched, but pointing out that his theories about nudity were influenced largely by his own ideas and experiences).

 

Recently, people engaged with magic–especially magic and ritual where engagement means contact with other people–have been raising their voices over systematic and ongoing abuse at the hands of elders and community members. Women and young people seem particularly vulnerable as targets of groping, unwanted pressure for sexual initiation, or having bodies simultaneously treated as sacred and sexualized as objects. I am not going to recapitulate the entire discussion of these abuses here, although I will highly recommend spending some time really processing posts like the tough-but-vital ones posted by Sarah Lawless in recent months. Her writing has been excellent and influential, and I have seen countless victims (including many men who experience abuse in neo-Pagan circles) step forward to talk about what has happened to them and insist that it stop (and stop it should!).

 

That is not my aim today, however, although my topic is tangled into the net of that discussion. I was curious about the role of the witch’s body, specifically the witch’s naked body, as a component of her power or her craft. I knew well the line from Leland’s Aradia quoted above, but I also know that Leland’s sources do not always speak to a broad experience (or even an historically verifiable one, although I value much of his work). Leland’s goddess insists that nudity is an unshackling from the bonds of slavery and a sign of freedom, and Gardner seems to have run with nudity as a liberating experience as well within his own coven. Yet we also see nudity being used to degrade witches, shame them, or force them into the role of living succubus or “red woman” seductress. Where does nudity fit into a New World magical practice? Are there precedents for nude practice, does nudity have any value in practical magic, and does nudity still matter today?

 

There are essentially two situations in which witches might practice nude in New World witchcraft: alone and in groups. However, even here there are some gray areas, because when a witch is “alone,” they are often not entirely alone. They may be meeting an Otherworldly entity for an initiation rite, for example, and be expected to offer their body up for sexual congress, or even a simple washing ritual. In Appalachian lore, however, the favors were not always sexual, as some initiation rites involved offering a literal piece of one’s body, where “the devil is granted your soul in exchange for some talent, gift, or magical power, it is thought that he then receives some gift of the body in return. This could be a fingernail or even a withered finger.”

 

Just as often, these initiation rites involve a solitary witch stripping bare, but only as a precursor to other solitary action: cursing or shooting at the moon or (more practically) wading into a river or stream to wash away a previous baptism in some symbolic way. The sexualization of the witch in these encounters is virtually nil, except as perhaps a titillating detail for the listener or a matter of practical necessity for the witch. The act itself is symbolic because the witch is abandoning a previous life–usually a Christian one–and the removal of clothing is much like the washing away of the baptism.

 

Other parts of the New World also held that witches might strip bare on their own as an abandonment of social order. That was the common perception in Puritan New England, where witches were believed to travel into the woods to meet with “devils” or “Indians” (who were sometimes regarded by European colonists as essentially interchangeable). The idea that witches practiced magic in the buff, however, varied immensely from place to place. Sometimes it is included as a detail in stories of hag-riding, for example, especially in cases where the witch needed to apply a flying ointment of some kind before taking off.

 

AnonymousUnknown author [Public domain] (via Wikimedia Commons)

Group rituals are often a mixed bag as well, since witches might work in conjunction with another witch at times or meet up with a number of other witches for special events (such as during Walpurgisnacht-type celebrations). In one Ozark story, a would-be witch undergoes her initiation when she “removes every stitch of clothing, which she hangs on an infidel’s [non-believer’s] tombstone.” This rite is witnessed by two other nude initiates, but the sexual congress is relegated solely to the witch and “the Devil,” and not any human initiates. One tale of a pair of sister-witches on Roan Mountain in the Smokies tells of two witches removing their clothing before greasing up and flying up the chimney, for example. Other accounts describe groups of women slipping out of their clothes–or more potently, their skins–before flying off to perform dances. Details of sexual congress appear in European accounts, but are often minimized in North American ones, and frequently even the more diabolical descriptions of group nudity tend not to emphasize sexuality. A number of African tales about witches do indicate that they might have traveled naked to do their work (which was often desecrating graves or hunting children, work that hopefully contemporary witches are not doing). In these cases, however, the nudity was often solitary and never sexual, as the emphasis was on the witch’s wildness and cannibalistic nature rather than her sexual one. I’d also note that in cases where groups of nude witches meet, they are often all one gender (with the exception being the presence of an Otherworldly figure like the Devil), and that when someone intrudes on magical nudity–as happens in the Roan Mountain story–that person is usually punished.

 

In Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules & Men, she recounts an initiation ceremony experienced at the hands of Louisiana conjure-man Luke Turner (who claimed a lineage with Marie Leveau). In that ritual, Hurston was indeed stripped of her clothing and required to lie on a couch with no food for three days while she waited for a spirit to claim her. Then she was carefully bathed and had a symbol painted upon her, and finally “dressed in new underwear and a white veil…placed over [her] head” after which no one was allowed to speak to her until the ritual was concluded. The nakedness here is again symbolic, but Hurston very much demonstrates that there is no sexual component to it. She is most powerful during the ritual when she is veiled, then eventually has the veil lifted and she is given a “crown of power.”

 

Some of the most sensational accounts that involve witchcraft-like practices and nudity are those that come out of places like New Orleans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries or out of Europe in the early Modern period around the time of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. In both cases, one group sought to exoticize another group and ascribing their rituals with depraved sexual fantasies made the stories of witchcraft all the more thrilling (in the same way that many horror films use flesh to both allure and repulse). Simply reading the Malleus Maleficarum opens up a realm of psychosexual fixations that reflect far more on the priest writing the stories than on any reported activities of witches. Scholar Ronald Hutton links some of these concerns to the long entanglement of witches as magic workers to night-stalking demons like succubi, who stole semen from sleeping men and tormented them with sexual dreams. The New Orleans press, in a similar vein, frequently featured stories of “primitive” African American “voodoo dances,” in which scores of naked or nearly-naked black men would dance. The scandal of these stories would escalate–often with particularly dire consequences to the black men–when papers reported white women joining the dances, again often nude. In these sensationalized accounts, the stripping of the body was highly sexualized and often showed the readers of such stories that magic, witchcraft, voodoo, or other forbidden topics would inevitably corrupt those who came too close. Those who know much about Vodoun as a religion, however, know that nudity is not typical to the formal celebrations and rituals to honor the lwa or invite them into a practitioner’s body. Clothing is often very specifically a part of the rites, with specific colors like white being appropriate when performing music or dance or offerings to invite divine interactions.

 

As often as there are stories of witches removing clothing, there are stories of witches slipping their skins off entirely–something I imagine most witches today won’t do readily–or donning animal skins as a precursor to shapeshifting, as often happened with the skinwalkers of Dine/Navajo tradition. Such practices were also echoed by those who hunted witches, as in Zuni rituals designed to help cleanse a community of witches when witch-hunters wore bear skins to enable them to track witches wearing the skins of creatures like coyotes. It’s worth noting as well that in the Zuni world, many of the accused witches were men, and contact with them required a special water-cleansing ceremony in which those afflicted with witchcraft would be stripped and bathed.

 

Albert Joseph Penot [Public domain] (via Wikimedia Commons)

 

So do witches go about in the nude? Absolutely. There’s no reason to think that they don’t. At the same time, do they have to go around in the nude? Absolutely not. Plenty of stories show witches putting on special clothing such as a fur or a veil in order to work witchcraft, and it does not seem to interfere at all with Gardener’s “electromagnetic field” (which, to be fair, even he conceded was not absolutely bound by clothing). Most crucially, except in sensationalized accounts, the nudity involved with witch stories is not particularly sexualized in the New World. There are many tales in which a magic worker might be bare but their nakedness is a symbolic act for them alone, and never an invitation for another person to violate their body. There are always exceptions, of course, but in most cases, we see examples like Hurston’s where a nude witch (or magical practitioner) is treated with extreme reverence and respect, rather than objectified for their body. Only when the nude witch is caught in the gaze of someone outside of her practice (and by someone untrustworthy) does her nakedness become a sexual problem, which seems to say much more about the one doing the gazing (and I, for one, am all for reviving a Euripedes-esque tearing asunder of those who would impose themselves on any gathering of witches in any state of undress).

 

Naked or not, the witch is powerful. Naked or not, the witch is not to be messed with. Naked or not, the witch does her work, and it is best to let her be.

 

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

References & Further Reading
  1. Breslaw, Elaine G., ed. Witches of the Atlantic World. NYU Press, 2000.
  2. Brown, Karen McCarthy. Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Univ. of California Press, 2011 ed.
  3. Courlander, Harold. A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore. DaCapo Press, 1996.
  4. Darling, Andrew. “Mass Inhumation & the Execution of Witches in the American Southwest.” American Anthropologist 100 (3), 1998. 732-52.
  5. Deren, Maya. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. McPherson, 1998 ed.
  6. Gates, Jr., Henry Louis, and Maria Tatar. The Annotated African American Folktales. Liveright, 2017.
  7. Gardner, Gerald B. Witchcraft Today. Citadel, 2004 ed.
  8. Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules & Men. HarperCollins, 2009 ed.
  9. Hurston, Zora Neale. Tell My Horse: Voodoo in Haiti and Jamaica. HarperCollins, 2008 ed.
  10. Leland, Charles. Aradia: Gospel of the Witches. Witches’ Almanac, 2010 ed.
  11. Milnes, Gerald C. Signs, Cures, & Witchery. Univ. of Tenn. Press, 2012 ed.
  12. Paddon, Peter. Visceral Magic. Pendraig, 2011.
  13. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore. Dover, 1964.
  14. Russell, Randy, and Janet Barnett. The Granny Curse and Other Ghosts and Legends from East Tennessee. Blair, 1999.
  15. Sprenger, James, and Henry Kramer. Malleus Maleficarum. Public Domain (Sacred-texts.com)
  16. Tallant, Robert. Voodoo in New Orleans. Pelican, 1984 ed.

Episode 94 – The Wheel of the Year

May 27, 2016

Summary:

This time around (get it? Puns!) we look at the Neo-Pagan wheel of the year. We also discuss the importance of cycles in magical and spiritual practice, and we announce our latest contest winner.

Please check out our Patreon page! You can help support the show for as little as a dollar a month, and get some awesome rewards at the same time.  Even if you can’t give, spread the word and let others know, and maybe we can make New World Witchery even better than it is now.

Producers for this show: Corvus, Diana Garino, Renee Odders, Ye Olde Magic Shoppe, Raven Dark Moon, Ivory, The Witches View Podcast,  Sarah, Molly, Corvus, Catherine, AthenaBeth, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, and Jessica (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!

Play:

Download: Episode 94 – The Wheel of the Year

 

 -Sources-

For our “Looking Back” segment, we turned to Episode 44 – American Holidays for our inspiration. We’d also like to mention Jason Mankey’s article “The Eight Great American Sabbats,” which prompted that discussion originally and influenced this one somewhat.

Laine mentions she’ll be trying an upcoming WitchBox to see if it sparks her practice a bit.

You can read a lot about the history of the Neo-Pagan holidays in Margaret Atwood Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon, Aidan Kelley’s A Tapestry of Witches, and Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun.

We’ll be attempting a live broadcast via Periscope in late June, so stay tuned for details on that!

Also, we should be launching our newest podcast effort, Chasing Foxfire, in the next few months as well.

If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!

Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter! And check out our Facebook page! For those who are interested, we also now have a page on Pinterest you might like, called “The Olde Broom.” Have something you want to say? Leave us a voice mail on our official NWW hotline: (442) 999-4824 (that’s 442-99-WITCH, if it helps).

 

 Promos & Music

Title and closing music is “Pig Ankle Rag,” by The Joy Drops, and is used under a Creative Commons License (available at Soundcloud.com).

Additional music is “Happy at the Wheel,” by The Twin Atlas, found at the Free Music Archive and used under a Creative Commons License.

Episode 92 – Sabbats and Esbats

April 22, 2016

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Summary:

In this episode, we look at witch gatherings under full moons and around bonfires, from tales in folklore to what we do when we get together with other witches.

 

Please check out our Patreon page! You can help support the show for as little as a dollar a month, and get some awesome rewards at the same time.  Even if you can’t give, spread the word and let others know, and maybe we can make New World Witchery even better than it is now.

 

Producers for this show: Corvus, Diana Garino, Renee Odders, Ye Olde Magic Shoppe, Raven Dark Moon, Ivory, The Witches View Podcast,  Sarah, Molly, Corvus, Catherine, AthenaBeth, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, and our newest Producer, Jessica (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!

 

CONTEST ANNOUNCEMENT! It’s the last month to enter! We want to do a second round of our Audio Spellbook, so all you have to do is send us the sound of *you* describing your favorite spell which uses everyday ingredients (things you could find in a spice cabinet, grocery store, or backyard, for example). You can either record your spell and email it to us at compassandkey@gmail.com or call us and leave us a voice mail on our official NWW hotline: (442) 999-4824 (that’s 442-99-WITCH, if it helps).  You can also get an extra entry by sharing either our Patreon page or our Contest Announcement via your favorite social media (make sure to tag us or get a screen capture you can email to us). What will you be entered to get? Well, you’ll get a NWW Annual Mailer (who can’t use an extra one of those, right?), a couple of bottles of our personally handmade condition oils, a folk charm or two, and a book or two to make it all even better!

Play:

Download: Episode 92 – Sabbats and Esbats

 

 -Sources-

Our “Looking Back” segment is Episode 43 – Solitary, Partner, or Coven. You may also want to check out our Special Episode – The Horned Women, which features a fairy tale version of a witch gathering.

We’ve got several book and media sources we mention in this episode:

We discuss several different mail-order Sabbat kits. We haven’t ever used any of them, so these aren’t recommendations, but the ones we’ve looked at a little bit are:

You may also want to check out Sarah Lawless’ episode on Sabbats from her old show, Hedgefolk Tales, which has an account by Robert Cochrane on it.

If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!

Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter! And check out our Facebook page! For those who are interested, we also now have a page on Pinterest you might like, called “The Olde Broom.”

 

 Promos & Music

Title and closing music is “Pig Ankle Rag,” by The Joy Drops, and is used under a Creative Commons License (available at Soundcloud.com).

Blog Post 56 – Walpurgisnacht

April 30, 2010

A caveat before I begin today’s post:  Walpurgisnacht is not terribly “New World.”  Most of it will be related to the British Isles and Europe, though I will include a little bit on New World practices, too.  But I think it’s still relevant to witchery, so I’m going to write about it anyway.  Mostly because, well, I really want to.

This is quite possibly my favorite witchy holiday, with the conditional exception of All Hallows/Halloween.  I do like May Day/Beltane celebrations, of course, but the night before is really what I love.  The association of this night with witchcraft seems to go back a long way.  The name of the holiday comes from a Catholic Saint who died in the year 777 C.E, St. Walburga.  Rosemary Ellen Guiley, in her Encyclopedia of Witches & Witchcraft, says this about the holiday:

“In the Middle Ages, Walpurgisnacht, or Walpurgis Night, was believed to be a night of witch revelry throughout Germany, the Low Countries and Scandinavia.  Witches mounted their brooms and few to the mountaintops, where they carried on with wild feasting, dancing and copulation with demons and the Devil…In Germany, the Brocken, a dominant peak in the Harz Mountains, was the most infamous site of the witch sabbats…[S]o common was the belief in the sabbats that maps of the Harz drawn in the 18th century almost always depicted witches on broomsticks converging upon the Brocken” ( EW&W, p.347)

What shifted the focus from holy martyrdom and sainthood to witch-filled revels?  Well, there’s no single reason why that I’ve found, but the date is directly opposite Halloween in the calendar year, so that might have something to do with it (what, you thought witches would be content with one night of fun a year?).

There are lots of stories about this night.  One from the Isle of Man between Scotland and Ireland tells the story of two witches and their (mis)adventures on Old May Eve.  Dennis Wheatly’s occult novel The Devil Rides Out features a Walpurgisnacht ritual rather prominently, as it does in Goethe’s Faust tragedy.  The scene at the end of the original Fantasia film featuring Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” also makes heavy reference to the revelries of Walpurgisnacht (I think I mentioned this in the Media Episode, too).  There are also many unusual traditions associated with this night.  When I was living in Prague, they had a tradition of building huge bonfires on hilltops on this night, and burning brooms or effigies of witches to keep evil spirits at bay, for example (it was really more of an excuse to drink around the bonfire).  Vance Randolph, in his Ozark Magic & Folklore, describes an Ozark tradition for May Eve:

“On the last night of April, a girl may wet a handkerchief and hang it out in a cornfield. Next morning the May sun dries it, and the wrinkles are supposed to show the initial of the man she is to marry. Or she may hold a bottle of water up to the light on the morning of May 1, just at sunrise, and see apicture of outline of the boy who is to be her husband” (OM&F, p.176)

My personal practice incorporates a storytelling bent, and there’s one story that I turn to every year as part of my Walpurgisnacht ritual.  “The Horned Women,” as recorded by Lady Wilde (in a collection with many tales also recorded by W.B. Yeats which I’ve mentioned before—Fairy & Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry), is not explicitly about this wild night.  Yet certain elements—the assembly of a coven of witches, and the prominent mention of a mountain where they revel, especially—have always called to mind this tale in relation to May Eve.  I glean much in the way of magic from this story, and incorporate things from it into my workings (such as the use of “feet water” to guide all harmful forces away from my home).

Walpurgisnacht doesn’t register on everyone’s radar.  Some are definitely drawn towards the Beltane side of this holiday, and I rather love that celebration, too.  But Walpurgisnacht will always have a special place in my heart.  There’s no night I more earnestly wish I could climb on a broomstick and sail off into a moonlit sky than this one.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory


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